Breach is based on the true story of Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), the veteran FBI agent responsible for selling secrets to the Russians in what amounted to the worst American security violation ever. Although Hanssen is the central character, the film is told through the eyes of Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), an ambitious young agent eager to make his mark. O’Neill is approached by senior FBI administrator Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) and asked to covertly spy on Hanssen by posing as his new file clerk. He is to make notes of everything that happens, no matter how seemingly trivial.
At first, Hanssen is tough on his new clerk, constantly challenging and even insulting him. O’Neill also feels like he’s hit a brick wall. Despite having been described as, among other things, a “sexual deviant,” Hanssen appears to be a devout Catholic, a loving husband and grandfather, and a loyal employee. Nevertheless, the junior agent continues to probe. By expertly manipulating facts – and embellishing his own interest in Catholicism -O’Neill manages to become something of a confidante to his boss. Keeping the lies straight takes work, and it also takes a toll on his marriage. His wife comes to resent the amount of time O’Neill is spending with Hanssen outside of work, but of course he can’t tell her what’s going on.
Breach is a very good film with a lot of strong elements; had it exploited those elements a little more, it would have been a great film. For example, there’s natural tension in the idea of a young FBI agent trying to bring down a veteran who is suspected of treason. You can’t go too far wrong with that, and the film generates real suspense as O’Neill rushes to download the contents of Hanssen’s PDA while his boss steps out of the office. Same goes for a sequence where he tries to keep Hanssen occupied while the FBI has his car disassembled. As good as these moments are, somehow it felt to me as though the overall tension should have been even higher. Director Billy Ray made a similar movie called Shattered Glass, which was about an editor trying to bring down New Republic plagiarist Stephen Glass. The stakes were obviously lower in that true story, yet the film moved at a break-neck pace and seemed to constantly ratchet up the stakes. Breach, on the other hand, ramps up to a certain level without ever really making you feel the enormous weight of what Hanssen was doing.
Part of the reason for this is that, although he’s brilliantly portrayed by Chris Cooper, Hanssen remains something of an enigma. Several characters in the movie make the statement that it doesn’t matter why Hanssen did it; it only matters that he did. I’m not so sure about that. While I applaud Breach for not applying any simplistic armchair psychology, it would have been more effective to have at least some minor indication of his motives. Given that this was the worst security breach in U.S. history, and since it directly resulted in at least three known deaths, there had to be some thought process in Hanssen’s mind. Maybe money was a factor or, perhaps, disillusionment with the American government. I think the filmmakers didn’t want to oversimplify what Hanssen did (which is admirable) but there was a way to avoid that pitfall while still starting to fill in what is a vital character detail. If we had even an inkling of Hanssen’s motives - or if we actually saw him in action - it would have succeeded in making the traitor seem more dangerous than he does.
Another example of how Breach achieves goodness but not greatness is found in the way it introduces a really compelling theme, then never quite follows up on it. As his wife demands to know more about what he’s doing, O’Neill has to either: 1.) keep her in the dark and face the personal repercussions, or; 2.) tell her about Hanssen and, therefore, breach security himself. The idea seems to be that one person who compromises things is just as bad as any other; it’s a slippery slope that may begin domestically, then turn global. To me, this was the most interesting aspect of the film and for a while, the theme gains some traction. Unfortunately, O’Neill’s wife is given little personality. She’s a stereotypical “movie wife” whose sense of being shut out doesn’t register as strongly as it ought to, which keeps that theme from hitting a home run.
These flaws are by no means deadly; they’re just mildly debilitating. For the most part, the movie is still intelligent and exciting enough to be engrossing. Some of that is due to the inherently fascinating true story behind it. The subject matter is pretty irresistible. The efforts of a phenomenal cast also contribute to the quality. Laura Linney achieves a nice mixture of toughness and resignation as the woman who despises what Hanssen has done and can’t quite believe how well he’s gotten away with it. As Eric O’Neill, Ryan Phillippe effectively conveys the intimidation his character has at trying to take down a guy who has spent his career outthinking Russian spies.
The best performance is from Chris Cooper, who avoids passing judgement on Robert Hanssen. The actor plays him neither as a sneering villain, nor as a pitiful loser, nor as a reactionary. Instead, this Hanssen is a complex man who seems to simultaneously embody two separate moral systems. He prides himself on his Catholicism and family life, yet carries on professionally in a way that is both immoral and disloyal. That’s a lot to put on one character’s plate, but Cooper brings it all to life memorably.
The best parts of Breach involve Hanssen making himself vulnerable to O’Neill’s fabrications. How does a guy who was admittedly one of the greatest FBI minds of recent times get suckered in by a relatively inexperienced kid? The film gives you the haunting impression that Hanssen wanted to get caught, that he perhaps knew what O’Neill was up to and decided it was time to bow out. Watching that drama unfold on screen is riveting. Breach can’t quite explain what caused Robert Hanssen to betray his country, but it does a fine job showing how his house of cards came crashing down.
( out of four)
Breach is rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.
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